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Cereal giants are duping shoppers with ‘all-natural’ claims, says lobby group

4 commentsBy Elaine Watson , 20-Oct-2011
Last updated the 24-Oct-2011 at 16:49 GMT

The row over the use of the term ‘natural’ on food packaging has intensified with the publication of a new report accusing leading cereal firms of duping shoppers with their own “self-serving” definitions in the absence of any legal criteria.

While manufacturers are not breaking the law by describing products containing pesticide residues, GMOs or ingredients extracted with organic solvents as ‘all-natural’, the description is nevertheless misleading because surveys consistently show most consumers* assume ‘natural’ means GMO- and pesticide free, claims the report from organic farming lobby group The Cornucopia Institute.

‘Meaningless marketing hype’

Meanwhile, big brands are also benefiting from widespread ignorance of the difference between ‘natural’ and ‘organic’, claim the authors, who argue that many shoppers also believe ‘natural’ products are more eco-friendly than organic products**.

“The term ‘natural’, in many instances, constitutes meaningless marketing hype promoted by corporate interests seeking to cash in on the consumer’s desire for food produced in a genuinely healthy and sustainable manner.

“Companies that market ‘natural’ foods to eco-conscious and health-conscious consumers benefit from this widespread confusion between organic and “natural.”

‘Simply dishonest’

Indeed, such is the appeal of ‘all natural’ claims that some firms that had been committed to using organic ingredients had switched to an ‘all-natural’ marketing platform instead, “allowing them to market their products to the same concerned consumer target audience, while using cheaper conventional ingredients that they could source at conventional prices”, it claims.

Companies marketing ‘natural’ products merely pay lip service to sustainability and eco-friendliness, while undercutting the truly committed companies that walk their talk by buying from farms that are managed organically, without synthetics, genetically engineered crops or toxic pesticides.”

Several firms are criticized in the report, including PepsiCo (Quaker) and Kellogg, which is accused of being “simply dishonest” for describing its Bear Naked Peak Protein granola as containing only ‘bearly [sic] processed and all natural ingredients’ because it contains soy protein isolate extracted with hexane.

“Using highly explosive, polluting petrochemical solvents to process soybeans is not consistent with being barely processed.”

Firms marketing ‘all-natural’ cereals should go organic

The authors conclude by calling on firms marketing ‘all-natural’ breakfast cereal to “become organic as a service to their customers”.

They add: “Polls have shown that consumers care about claims such as ‘no pesticides’ and ‘no GMOs’. The only way to assure this is by being certified organic. ‘Natural’ claims may be profitable, but they are misleading and disingenuous unless the product is certified organic.”

FDA: No formal definition

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not established a formal definition for the term 'natural' on food labels but follows a 1993 policy that states:

“[FDA] has not objected to the use of the term [natural] on food labels provided it is used in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. Use of the term ‘natural’ is not permitted in a product's ingredient list, with the exception of the phrase ‘natural flavorings’.”

However, the term continues to prompt controversy (and lawsuits), generating an enormous amount of noise that some commentators argue has diverted attention from more substantive nutritional and sustainability issues (is the all-natural candy full of sugar? Is the all-natural flavor shipped half-way across the world?)

PepsiCo/Quaker was unavailable for comment as this article went to press. However, a Kashi (Kellogg) spokesman said: "Our belief is that both natural and organic foods can play important roles in positively impacting people and planet health...At Kashi, we provide comprehensive information about our foods to enable people to make well-informed choices and we stand behind our advertising and labeling practices."

*Cornucopia cites a 2010 poll by the Hartman Group revealing that 61% of consumers believe the term ‘natural’ implies the absence of genetically modified foods and 62% believe it implies the absence of pesticides.

** Cornucopia cites consumer polls by San Francisco-based research firm Context Marketing, released in 2009 and 2010, showing that more consumers value the term ‘natural’ than ‘organic’. It also cites a 2009 survey of 1,006 consumers by The Shelton Group showing that consumers found ‘100% natural’ to be more desirable as an eco-friendly product label claim than ‘100% organic’.

Click here to read the report: Cereal Crimes: How 'natural' claims deceive consumers and undermine the organic label - A look down the cereal and granola aisle

4 comments (Comments are now closed)

self serving propaganda from the organic segment

The problem with defining natural has become that some industry groups like this one have tried to co-opt the effort and force everything to organic. They aren't happy that natural brands can actually deliver products at a more reasonable price, and just want to take that segment out of the market and reduce competition. Organic brands aren't making the market worthwhile for farmers, so ingredient supply is always short, keeping prices high. If the brands would truly commit and support the farmers (meaning the brands make a little less profit in the short term), then they could achieve their stated vision of getting more people to eat orgainc. The organic people like to get rich just like everyone else, however, so despite all the posturing this isn't happening.

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Posted by Jeff
08 November 2011 | 18h39

Legal mess

Every packaging claim today is cloaked in legalese. Natural, organic, cage free and every other description is a legal construct and really has no bearing in regard to the word's original meaning.

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Posted by Scott Smith
05 November 2011 | 18h26

But... is it even organic when it says it's organic?

What The Cornucopia Institute failed to mention in its original press release is that most of the certified-organic food sold in grocery stores these days is actually imported from places like China, Mexico, Brazil and Chile, and too darn bad for the local, family organic farmer.

What’s more, while Cornucopia warns us that cheap, “Natural” food products deceive consumers because they might contain toxic chemicals, it must be pointed out that there’s currently no field testing in the organic industry. None. So how do we know the certified-organic food Cornucopia prefers is even purer and more nutritious as claimed?

I’m big a supporter of the organic movement. I grew up on an organic grain farm and worked for five years as an organic inspector. And it saddens me to say that the certification of “organic” food is nothing more than a glorified marketing scheme. If you spend your hard-earned grocery budget on organic food, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you that there’s no guarantee whatsoever that you’re getting anything that’s purer or more nutritious than regular food. Buy from a local farmer that you know! And do not under any circumstances ever buy organic from a grocery store.

You see, the United States Department of Agriculture’s much-ballyhooed National Organic Program (NOP) is administered under the rubric of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, not its Research, Inspection, Nutrition, Safety, Risk Management or Conservation services. Don’t consumers and the environment deserve a bit of scientific assurance?

Cornucopia knows full well that there’s no field testing. In fact they think the USDA should maybe start spot testing, but they don’t think there’s any point testing all organic farms and processing facilities even though doing so would cost a tenth what the current bureaucratic system costs.

So, with all due respect to the Cornucopia Institute which claims to stand up for the right of family-scale organic farmers, I really have to ask… Have you ever heard that expression about people who live in glass houses?

Please feel free to post my comments on your site.

All the best, and stay organic!

www.isitorganic.ca

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Posted by Mischa Popoff
21 October 2011 | 02h23

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